Study coordinator Dr. Marco Pahor of the University of Florida and colleagues with the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders study, randomly assigned sedentary men and women ages 70 to 89 who were able to walk 437 yards -- about a quarter mile.
Half were assigned to a structured, moderate-intensity physical activity program conducted in a center and at home that included aerobic, resistance and flexibility training activities. The other half were assigned to a health education program involving workshops on topics relevant to older adults and upper extremity stretching exercises.
The more than 1,600 study participants were tracked for more than two years at Southern Connecticut State University, University of Florida, Northwestern University, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Stanford University, Tufts University, the University of Pittsburgh and Wake Forest University.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found those who participated in the exercise program were 18 percent less likely to fail the 437-yard walk test during and after the study and 28 percent less likely to lose their ability to walk over a sustained period compared with the control group.
"These results suggest the potential for structured physical activity as a feasible and effective intervention to reduce the burden of disability among vulnerable older persons, in spite of functional decline in late life," the study authors said in the study.
The study was released early online to coincide with its presentation at the American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting.